Professional vs. amateur, successful skeptics can’t be defined by a label

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May 1, 2013 by kittynh

Hayley Stevens, UK skeptic and ghost hunting expert, recently felt the need to take a short break from her well respected blog and skepticism activism to cogitate about recent comments about the role amateurs should, or should not, play in the skeptic movement.

Sadly during the recent QED conference in the UK, Hayley had this experience.

Earlier this month I sat in the audience of a Skeptical Activism panel at QEDcon and felt a bit of a blow as one of the panelists declared that you should only conduct activism if you’re a professional.

She goes on to say that she has heard this bit of criticism before, and even though her blog was shortlisted for “Best Blog” Ockham’s awards 2013, she felt belittled for not being what this panel member considered a “professional”

To borrow a word from the English “Bullocks”.

First off, let’s define “professional”.  Did this panel member mean professional as in having a degree in higher education?  That’s silly, because James Randi, who has inspired so many including myself and my daughter to become active in the skeptic community, does not have a college education.

I actually emailed Randi to ask his take on those of us perhaps not as highly educated as others participating in skeptic activism. I have often heard people such as Sylvia Browne refer to Randi as “Just a magician”, thank goodness we have magicians is my response!

He was kind enough to reply to my email by writing about how in his next book and how he covers this exact topic.

My next book – “A Magician in the Laboratory” will deal specifically with this situation.  In its 28 chapters it will relate how I visited professional scientists all over the world who had endorsed “psychics,” “intuitives,” “prophets,” and other seeming wonder-workers, and then found that they had been deceived despite their professional opinions.  They were, as I’ve often said, well-educated, but not very smart.  The book will describe how they were misled, misinformed, tricked, and in many cases disgraced because they had no expertise in the sort of matters with which magicians, criminals, and con-artists are very experienced.

Randi.  

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Self taught is perhaps an understatement when it comes to Randi.

Perhaps this panelist at QED was simply expressing  a belief that I have heard, that unless you are an “expert” on a subject you should not try to be involved as a skeptic.  This is true to a point.

If you are helping with UFO identification, it helps to be familiar with what’s up there in the night sky.  Being an astronomer or at least an amateur of many years experience, helps. I find that while I am still a beginner with astronomy, I can easily contact one of many astronomers I know that are willing to help when I have a question.  I also find it helpful to study up on the hard work already done by other skeptics.

A good knowledge of most well known UFO cases will help if you are answering questions about UFO cases covered by the media.  Still, in my own work I rely on mentoring from more experienced UFO experts, such as Robert Sheaffer (you can’t be any more of an expert than he is) and Tim Printy.  While I may stumble a bit in my skeptic work, their corrections, help and encouragement is far better than their saying “Just leave it to us experts”.  I should comment that Robert is not always gentle in his criticism about my work, but he’s never been less than encouraging.  I have an expanded UFO skeptic library to reference thanks to his generosity in sending me books on the subject.

My own talks on alien abduction usually start with my showing a slide with my diploma from Roswell University.  I have a Masters in “Alien Biology”.  The point is, you have to be self educated and rely on the help of others to be a “Bigfoot”, “Alien” or “Ghost” expert.  No one person is an “expert” on anything to the point that they don’t ever need to ask for help from another.

I know much of the good work skeptics do with vaccination education is lead by skeptics that are just concerned parents.  Alternative medicine, while being a physician helps the problem is many alternative medicine users don’t trust mainstream physicians.  Sometimes, a skeptic  that has a knowledge of why homeopathy doesn’t work or why chiropractic manipulation is dangerous,  can do more good than any physician.  I’ve spoken to co workers, friends and relatives about alternative medicine and the dangers, and often have had wonderful results.  I’m not “big pharma”, I’m just a friend asking them to take a second look at a treatment they are trying or considering.

Some skeptics, those that make their living from skepticism, do have a fairly legitimate beef with the amateurs. This is not a problem of skepticism alone.  I have friend that writes about the art world.  He used to be paid very well for his articles 15 years ago.  Now, he finds people expect him to do reviews and articles for free or at a reduced rate.  His commentary is still insightful and no one can match him for his knowledge on the subject, but with the death of so many paper magazines he used to write for, he finds it much harder to make up that income via the internet.  The internet has thousands of happy unpaid writers, and while a good writer is still going to be making a living, a struggling new writer wanting to make a living via writing is going to find it harder to do so.

It is the same with skepticism.  There are plenty of happy unpaid skeptics blogging, investigating, giving talks and even willing to pay their own airfare and hotel costs if they can be part of a conference.  The professional skeptic, one trying to make a living at this, is going to find a field of happy amateurs willing to work for free competing with them.

Great professional skeptics abound and they manage to make a living.  They write wonderful bestselling books.  They write articles and have blogs that are popular enough they get paid to write them.  They get paid to speak and share their expertise and knowledge at conferences.  But sometimes they must think, “Please, get it right or get out of skepticism!”  They have a very high standard as this is how they make their living.  They are indeed professionals.  Still they are limited in number.

I volunteer with the local Bigfoot group.  I do so not because I am a Bigfoot expert or even that I particularly like Bigfoot.  I was asked to just sit in on their chat meetings and enjoy some lovely time wandering around the woods looking for a large bi-pedal ape.  The local group, inspired by the TV show “Finding Bigfoot” (they never do you know), felt they needed a skeptic.  This is a big win for skepticism.  The need to have someone they have to “convince” means they have to listen to me try to “convince” them they might be mistaken about a Squatch in our backyards.

I pointed out to the group that I was not a biologist.  I was sort of familiar with what lived in the woods locally, but I did not have the expertise of even the average Cub Scout.  That was fine, they knew I was a “person that didn’t believe much”.  That is as good a definition of a skeptic as any.  The point was that they had tried to ask a biologist from the local college, and guess what, biologists are usually busy doing biology.  Scientists spend a lot of time doing science.  Their answer to my denial of expertise was “Well, yes but you are all we have, you’ll just have to do.”

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The main problem with Bigfoot hunting, there is always another tree to look behind.

Astronomers are busy looking at stars, not looking for UFOs.  Biologists are looking at animals known to exist, or finding new ones that are slightly smaller than a hairy man like ape.  Pediatricians are busy with their patients, and are trying to convince parents to vaccinate, but they often have limited time during an office visit.   Neurologists are busy helping people with often terrible life debilitating diseases, they don’t have time to figure out if that ghost is just all in your mind or not.

Many scientists and people with advanced degrees of course are wonderful skeptics.  They help educate us all. But in a world full of woo, sometimes as my Bigfoot hunting friends say “You’ll just have to do.”

When you are put in that position, that of the amateur skeptic that will “have to do” it’s important to contact other skeptics for help.  You’ll need to study up on your own also, and know when to say “I don’t know, but I’ll see if I can find out!” (and say it often).  One Bigfoot expert gave me a difficult time because I didn’t know to write “Bigfoot” instead of “Big foot”.  The point is, I learned to write “Bigfoot” and I’m still here covered in bug spray looking for a Squatch!  Like it or not, the amateurs are here to stay.

UPDATE!
I’d like to include a comment Harriet Hall made on facebook about this post.  It includes Ray Hyman’s terrific easy to follow steps that any skeptic needs to follow.

Harriet Hall Ray Hyman’s essay on “Proper Criticism” offers some advice that is pertinent here: Anyone can participate, but you must 1.Be prepared
2. Clarify your objectives
3. Do your homework
4. Do not go beyond your level of competence
5. Let the facts speak for themselves
6. Be precise
7. Use the principle of charity
8. Avoid loaded words and sensationalism

Thank you Harriet, and Ray!

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